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4:14pm 16/09/2022
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A Merdeka tribute to the economic and media frontliners’ contribution during COVID-19
By:Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz

As I stood in Dataran Merdeka with tens of thousands of Malaysians for the National Day parade on August 31, and in Melaka on September 16, the excitement and optimism in the crowd was palpable.

It was heart-warming and emotional for me to see the Mexican wave of Jalur Gemilangs, and the genuine smiles of Keluarga Malaysia. We were not only celebrating 65 years of nationhood or 59 years of Malaysia’s formation, but also our collective effort and resilience in weathering the worst pandemic in a century to hit the world and Malaysia.

Between Merdeka and Malaysia Day, many of my friends and family members reflected on the nation’s successful transition from a country on the verge of a public health-economic crisis to one where normalcy has been almost fully restored. But nothing happened by chance. So much meticulous planning and the courage to defy conventions went into it.

I recall vividly the early days of COVID-19’s arrival on our shores. In no time, the death toll and infection rate skyrocketed at terrifying rates and scale, while the economy was put to a I had just joined the Government from the corporate sector at the time and found myself in the deep end as this unprecedented calamity began to menacingly unfold, with no playbook to refer to.

It was, by all accounts, a heart-wrenching moment – first to see so many of my countrymen succumbing to this deadly virus and secondly, fearing for the fate of the millions of families being so badly impacted. The loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and closure of businesses filled me with fear and trepidation.

As Minister of Finance, watching the human tragedy unfold in real time – seeing the breadwinners who couldn’t put food on the table for his young family or the odd single mother driven to suicide by despair as a result from the lockdown – gave me sleepless nights.

We were all familiar with stories of human grit and survival back then: pilots who became food suppliers; corporate executives who traded their suits for overalls to take up manual jobs; or the helplessness of micro-SMEs surviving on daily earnings but forced to close their operations during the early months of the Movement Control Order to contain the virus.

Every day I wrestled with my conscience. Had I taken on too much by accepting the job as Finance Minister? Every conscious moment of the day, I looked for ways to sustain the economy and later, to revitalize it.

We rolled out the first stimulus package aimed at supporting the economy and throwing a lifeline to vulnerable groups such as those who were furloughed, or businesses whose revenues had virtually vanished overnight, all barely weeks after I joined the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Eight packages were introduced over the next two years, worth a staggering RM530 billion in total value. These figures do not include the tabling of two consecutive record- high National Budgets of RM322.5 billion for 2021 and RM332.1 billion for 2022.

When the COVID-19 vaccines became available, the Government acted swiftly to secure Keluarga Malaysia’s vaccine supply. The top priority then was to vaccinate the entire population as soon as possible. Praise be to the Almighty, the tide eventually shifted with the efficient implementation of the COVID-19 National Immunization Plan. The healthcare and security frontliners were rightfully lauded for this, even as we mourn the loss of more than 36,000 Malaysians who succumbed, leaving children orphaned, or parents childless.

The deep debt of gratitude we owe the healthcare frontliners can never be repaid, particularly those who themselves succumbed to the virus in the line of No amount of gratitude will be enough for their sacrifice in keeping this country safe.

However, in retrospect, I must also recognize our economic and communications/media frontliners, who have received less attention but worked tirelessly throughout the the Government’s responsive and responsible economic and communications policies supported Malaysians’ innate resilience through a whole-of- nation approach.

We, as a people, though damaged and battered, persevered, and recovered. We were down, but not out; broken but not irreparably damaged.

My recently launched book, Weathering the Economic Storm: A Journey Through the Uncharted Waters of COVID-19 chronicles the country’s hazardous journey through the pandemic’s rough waters, as well as the various platforms for policy communication that the MOF and Ministry of Health used to keep the public updated on the progress through this perilous journey to health and economic recovery.

Frontliners come in all shapes and forms. The ones we’re used to seeing wear personal protective equipment, and those equipped with stethoscopes and syringes.

However, there are many behind-the-scenes frontliners who crunch mind-numbing numbers on complex spreadsheets or report stories responsibly to contribute to the nation’s healing. Many of these frontliners are my colleagues in the MOF and other ministries, as well as people in the media and various Government agencies. All of them have worked tirelessly to keep the economy afloat or communicate updates in a fair and transparent manner.

We grappled with issues ranging from food security to restoring broken supply chains; from explaining the necessity of the manufacturing sector’s continued operations to debunking myths and halting the spread of fake news about the virus, among other things. It would be an understatement to merely pass it off by saying we had our hands full. My book is a tribute to their efforts and tireless dedication to the nation’s well-being.

Alhamdulillah, we have now grown for three consecutive quarters, thanks in part to our earlier measures in 2020 and 2021 – such as the RM21 billion wage subsidies for companies and job creation measures for the rakyat, which laid the groundwork for the recovery in Q4 2021 (3.6%), Q1 2022 (5.0%) and Q2 2022 (8.9%). Unemployment in July this year was 3.7%, a significant decrease from the peak of 5.3% in May 2020.

These achievements demonstrate that with level-headed leadership premised on responsive measures, and responsible, transparent communications/reporting, we can do wonders to steer the economic ship safely back to calmer waters for Keluarga Malaysia.

As I enter my thirtieth month in MOF, I am in some ways relieved, and in many ways, grateful to the Almighty that I threw my hat in the ring in March 2020 to be part of the battalion ‘fighting in the trenches’ to contain the virus’ debilitating impact. Malaysia has such a strong collaborative spirit that if we put our hearts and minds to it, we can raise our country to the next level.

On a personal note, I recall visiting a makcik selling songkok in Kg Baru in February 2021, who expressed her gratitude for being able to reopen her business.

There are many more such stories I have heard, and these trigger a deep sense of fulfillment in me. It has also made me realize that, while this is a very different world from the corporate ‘bubble’ I used to be part of, there is so much more to life, and it feels more fulfilling for me now to spend more of my working life in the service of the people, if given the chance.

Finally, I feel that Keluarga Malaysia is more than just a slogan; it is an extension of our founding fathers’ vision of a peaceful and progressive nation.

And if each of us can play a role in keeping this vision alive, we will have fulfilled a very important mission in our lives for this beloved nation of ours.

(Tengku Zafrul bin Tengku Abdul Aziz is the Minister of Finance, Malaysia.)

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Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz

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